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The tourism industry in Turkey is still trying to assess the medium-term cost of a wave of anti-government protests at the end of May and through June, but recent figures suggest at least some holiday-makers are choosing to forego a visit this summer.
Sparked by opposition to plans to re-develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park – located in the tourism and entertainment district of Taksim – for commercial purposes, the protests widened to express a broader dissatisfaction with government policies. Images of clashes in Taksim and other places around Turkey made international headlines – front page news that appears to have slowed the momentum of the local tourism industry.
According to data issued by the Tourism Ministry on July 22, foreign arrivals increased by 4.9% year-on-year (y-o-y) in June, with just over 4m visitors passing through Customs for the month, bringing the total to 14.5m for the first six months of the year. While the June figures are solid, the rate of increase is the lowest since November last year and came hard on the heels of four months of double-digit growth. February and March saw arrival numbers rise by more than 25% y-o-y, while comparable growth in April and May, although smaller, was still 13% and 18%, respectively.
Despite the unrest, Istanbul itself saw an increase in tourist arrivals in June, with numbers up by 2% compared to the same month in 2012, at just under 958,000. This took the six-month total to 4.9m, up 16.8% y-o-y. However, the rise potentially represents passengers transiting Istanbul’s two international airports on their way to destinations in other parts of the country, in particular the resort regions of the Mediterranean coast, Timur Bayindir, the president of the Turkish Hotels and Investors Association, told the Hurriyet Daily News.
While the growth of flow of visitors may have eased, spending levels did not, according to data released by the Turkish Statistics Institute (Turkstat) on July 30. Earnings from tourism rose to $8.68bn for the second quarter, 22.8% up on the same three-month period in 2012 and almost double the $4.9bn for the first quarter of the year. The average per-tourist spend stood at $825, though Turkstat found that Turks living abroad on average spent $1335 and overseas guests a far lower $766 per person.
Turkey has been developing a reputation as a package tour destination, but the Turkstat report noted that $6.47bn of revenues during the second quarter came from individual travellers, while just $2.21bn was generated by visitors on package tours. It is likely that almost all of the Turks visiting from abroad would fall into the individual category.
Second quarter numbers look good, but the effect of the protests seems to be lingering. The district surrounding Taksim is home to many of the city’s best-known four- and five-star hotels – with a number on or close to Taksim Square itself – and these did see a sharp downturn in bookings. Some of these “frontline” hotels also suffered damage during clashes between protestors and police, though this was quickly repaired. By the beginning of August, two five-star hotels overlooking Gezi contacted by OBG reported bookings still well below seasonal averages and room rate discounts of 50% and more, suggesting those establishments most affected by demonstrations were still struggling to shake off the effects of any negative impressions held by top-end travellers.
A fairer indicator as to what degree the unrest in Istanbul and elsewhere has affected the tourism trade will come when the third quarter data are released in October. The first two months of the quarter are peak season for both domestic and international tourism, though factors other than the recent unrest could come into play and weaken results, including a weak economy in Europe and disturbances in the Middle East.
The July-to-September period will also be affected by the advent of Ramazan, which this year fell in mid-July through the second week of August. The holy month traditionally slows holidaymaking and travel by Turks residing abroad and by Arab visitors, though this could be offset by a surge of travel in the second half of August and the first weeks of September, before schools resume.
If the rate of arrivals does not return to its fast-track climb, Turkey may not be able to better its 31.7m record posted last year. With 14.5m inbound travellers in the first six months, the tourism sector will need the rest of the summer holiday season to be a good one to challenge the 2012 figure. Suggestions are that the cooling of the European economy and the aftertaste of the Gezi protests could mean it will be next year at the earliest before any records are again broken.